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Farmers fight muddy campaign to harvest last beets

“Week to 10 days.”

That’s how much time east Willwood farmer Ray Farwell needs to extract his beets from the muddy earth, he said Tuesday.

For farmers, it is called the “sugar campaign,” meaning folks are toiling seven days per week under intense conditions to harvest beets and deliver them to the factory or beet dump. It is definitely a campaign for Farwell, a long, difficult struggle at the end of the harvest season.

Farwell believes the east Willwood area has seen more precipitation than other locations in the Powell area this year. While farmers almost always welcome rain, the soggy conditions have hampered the harvest this year.

“I’ve never seen so much rain,” Farwell said. “It’s going to be a good season to get behind us.”

The problem is once saturated, fields won’t dry in the cool temperatures as they do in the heat of summer. The beet harvest is hard work, and although he doesn’t know what the price will be, it will probably be considerably lower than the previous year.

This is the kind of year when farmers appreciate the good years. For the last two years, beets have been bringing between $60 and $70 per ton.

Farwell planted 450 acres of beets this year and reckoned he would have 135 to 140 acres left to harvest Wednesday evening. It’s been a slog, one he’s experienced before. One autumn in the 1970s he dug beets until Nov. 7, Farwell recalled Tuesday.

Another area farmer, Jerry Faxon, has been farming since 1976 and he can’t recall a wetter season. He planted 429 acres of beets northwest of Powell.

“We’re down to our last field,” Faxon said at noon Wednesday. “About 12 acres to go.”

About 94 percent of beets in the area have been harvested, said Mark Bjornestad, a Western Sugar Cooperative representative, on Wednesday morning. The harvest should conclude in seven to 10 days, but that’s just part of the business.

“Our processing should go well into February,” Bjornestad said.

The fourth generation of Farwells are farming on some very silty soil with a heavy clay base, said Eric Loloff of Running Horse Realty. Loloff, who enjoys keeping an eye on local farming, noted this week how many extra tires were mounted on tractors and other equipment to help get through the muddy fields in these closing days.

“The old saying ‘The proof of the pudding is in the taste,’ which means whatever it takes, they (Farwell) will do it to get the last 175 acres of beets out of the ground and delivered,” Loloff said. “Most people have seen tractors dualed up, but triples on each side in the back of the tractor and dualed in the front is really something, it keeps the tractor from sinking and them being able to harvest.”

The extra wheels keep the tractor buoyant and aid traction. But Farwell said it could have been worse.

“I don’t think anybody is running triples,” he said.

Indeed the 10-wheeled tractor towing the digger seems to clip right along. Wednesday was the first day in at least 10 days they weren’t forced to hitch beet trucks to tractors to pull them through the fields, Faxon said.

Farwell bought the beet cart in North Dakota because his tractor-trailers couldn’t negotiate the muddy fields. The cart’s capacity is 24 tons, so it nearly fills a tractor-trailer, Farwell said.

The digger fills the cart, then Brian Leonhardt of Lovell tows the cart with his tractor to dry ground, where Farwell’s three tractor-trailers await a load.

“That beet cart is worth its weight in gold,” Farwell said.

The mud is hard on workers and machinery and increases fuel consumption because it takes more fuel to power equipment through dense mud, Farwell said. Grower equipment repair bills are going to be 50 percent higher if not more this season, thanks to the wear and tear they endure in the mud, Bjornestad said.

The wet weather has slowed the progress. He has 300 acres of sunflowers he should be harvesting now. “I’ve never seen a fall like this,” Farwell said.

He also grows malt barley, alfalfa hay and 150 black Angus cattle. The beet tops — if they aren’t crushed into the mire — will feed his cattle. Because some of the beets may be impossible to reach by digger, the Angus will eat them too. “They love them sugar beets,” Farwell said.

The temperature was in the mid 30s Tuesday afternoon at Farwell’s place. Like a chimney stack that puffed its first breath of fire, tractor exhaust pipes burped a cloud of diesel exhaust at the perfect blue sky. The air was redolent with the pleasing scents of diesel and fresh beets.

Despite Farwell’s tribulations it was interesting watching the digger, cart and tractors working as one in the field, with beets tumbling into the trailer like giant potatoes. Farwell holds his employees in high esteem, especially after seeing them work in the rough conditions.

“I’ve got a good crew,” he said.    

Farwell, 73, has been farming for 52 years. He was born and raised in the Willwood area and has never left, he said. Although it’s been “nerve-wracking” wrestling beets from the mud, Farwell said he enjoys his profession.

“I love it,” Farwell said. “I wish I could do it for another 52 years.” 

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